Boardwalk Empire Recap: Ruthless People

Photo: Christopher T. Saunders/HBO
Boardwalk Empire
Episode Title
Friendless Child
Editor’s Rating

Well, we’re almost there, people.

The story of Nucky Thompson and all the gangsters he came in contact with is nearly coming to a close. And even though we have one more episode left to go, the penultimate episode, “Friendless Child,” makes sure our central character’s reign as the boss of Atlantic City reaches its finite end.

He didn’t give it up without a fight, though. Packing heat and rocking a shoulder holster, we first see Nucky pacing around his club, snarling and practically foaming at the mouth as Luciano continues to wage war on him and his crumbling empire. He launches a counter-attack by sending Mickey and Archie to kidnap Bugsy Siegel, which does not go as smoothly as planned, catching him after he had a nooner with some poor schnook’s wife. (Said poor schnook not only catches Siegel on the stairs as he leaves his place, oblivious to what went down between the gangster and his old lady, but he also catches some lead when Archie and Siegel get in a shoot-out.)

Luciano counterattacks as well by kidnapping Willie Thompson — remember him? — who’s hardly working at U.S. Attorney Robert Hodge’s office. Nucky finds this out from none other than his brother Eli, who, as I predicted last week, visited New York to see his son, and ended up witnessing the abduction go down.

Both kidnappings indicate who has the upper hand in this battle. Nucky’s kidnapping seems like something out of a screwball farce, with Nucky initially failing to alert Luciano of the kidnapping (Luciano assumes Siegel is smashing some dame when Thompson puts Siegel on the phone), and the ever-snotty Siegel annoying Nucky and his boys by constantly yapping and singing dirty songs. (Even Archie’s sap whips upside the head can’t shut this boy up.) Luciano’s kidnapping is far more calm, calculated and cruel, as both Luciano and Willie keep a cool demeanor, even as Luciano’s goon unnecessarily chokes Willie when he says he’s not involved with Thompson’s family business.

When both parties agree to have an exchange of bodies out in the sticks, it soon becomes a double-cross when Siegel punches Willie back to Luciano’s side and Nucky is forced to give up Atlantic City in order to keep him alive. (This is after Luciano and his men kill Mickey — finally! — and Archie and Nucky is told to get on his knees by Lansky, payback for all the times Nucky had Lansky begging on his knees in some remote area.)

Nucky manages to escape the big sleep by agreeing to off Maranzano, the final obstacle in Luciano’s mafia takeover, in exchange for Willie. The irony of Maranzano’s death definitely wasn’t lost on me, as the Caesar-obsessed capo received an “Et tu, Brute!”–style whacking, complete with several guys knifing him and one bullet in the head from Eli. (I’m surprised the whole thing didn’t take place on the Ides of March.)

Willie gets dumped outside Hodge’s office, bruised but not broken, with Hodge practically oblivious to the war that’s going on right under his nose. As it was declared with the kinetic, old-school montage at the top of the episode, Willie’s boss takes to the radio airwaves and declares war against the Mafia. However, these gangsters are way too antsy and paranoid about each other to give a damn about what Hodge and the Feds are gonna do to them. Meanwhile, Nucky returns to Atlantic City just completely broken. He engages in some tough love with the always-earnest Joel Harper, encouraging the lad to get the hell away from him and do something else with his life.

It’s in this week’s batch of flashbacks where we understand why Nucky doesn’t want to lead another naïve kid astray. After young Nucky caught elusive young thief Gillian Darmody in last week’s episode, Nucky (with some prodding from Mabel, who takes a shine to the wayward girl) puts the runaway orphan up at his place for a night or two. Unfortunately, around this time, he discovers the Commodore’s penchant for “helping” young girls after Sheriff Lindsay resigns in disgust and Nucky has to pick up the slack.

From the way veteran HBO director Allen Coulter and writers Riccardo DiLoreto, Cristine Chambers, and Howard Korder set up this episode, Nucky’s life is coming full circle. Of course, we already know that Nucky will hand Gillian over to the Commodore, officially the jump-off point in Thompson’s dark-hearted, morally ambiguous journey in becoming the fallen leader he is now. Now that Nucky has opened up that damn Nellie Bly letter and sees that the girl who once begged for his help as a kid is now begging for his help as an adult, as she’s holed up in an insane asylum, perhaps Nucky’s last act will be one of redemption rather than retaliation.

Let’s face it: Unless we’ve been watching an alternate-history gangland saga all this time, we know that Luciano, Lansky, and Siegel won’t get their comeuppance in the final episode. Luciano died of a heart attack at age 64, Lansky died of lung cancer at age 80, and Siegel, after years of pissing off his fellow mobsters, went out in a hail of sniper fire at age 41. Hell, there’s even a good chance Nucky will survive. After all, the man he’s modeled after, Nucky Johnson, lived to be 85. But the Nucky of Boardwalk Empire, the same man who once said he’s not seeking forgiveness when he blasted a bullet in the brain of Jimmy Darmody, may seek something resembling it if he chooses to help out Jimmy’s mother in next week’s last chapter.

Stray thoughts, for your pleasure:

  • Now it’s time to play “How Factually Accurate Was That Death?” Maranzano’s murder was quite accurate: A crew claiming to be tax men busted into his office and shot and stabbed him to death in September of 1931. However, the legend goes that it was Siegel (who had a bum, bullet-filled leg in this episode) and his men who did the killing. And believe it or not, Doyle’s death is also linked to real-life events. Mickey Duffy, the bootlegger Doyle was based on, died a month before Maranzano. But he died in an Atlantic City hotel by unknown, possibly disgruntled assailants.
  • Am I the only one who thought of all those movie scenes where somebody is painfully telling some big, dumb animal to go away when Nucky told Harper to get lost? (My mind immediately went to the heartbreaking “Good-bye, My Friend” scene from Harry and the Hendersons.)
  • Kelly Macdonald is back, however briefly, to keep Nucky up to date on those Mayflower Grain Corporation — a.k.a. that company Joe Kennedy is a part of — stocks he’s shorting.
  • “I told myself if he’s doing okay, it was worth it. And here you are, on the right side of the street. That’s all.” Man, Shea Whigham has done some sad-eyed, stirring work this season.
  • Luciano, Lansky, and Siegel really are some young-punk pissants, aren’t they? They can barely disguise their disdain for their elders, whether it’s Thompson, Maranzano, or even Johnny Torrio. (That wide shot of Torrio standing alone as Luciano, Lansky, and Siegel celebrate their victory with some bubbly and broads, mere seconds after Luciano and Lansky brushed off his counsel, is a sobering reminder of how much youth disregards their history, which they will certainly repeat.)
  • I gotta say, it was a brief-but-cute moment of unlikely male bonding when Nucky and Mickey chuckled at how Mickey has became his closest ally. I’m assuming this hell-has-frozen-over moment is what later led to Mickey striking up a deal with Nucky to get the club if he stuck around during the exchange. Nucky agrees, much to Mickey’s surprise. But, unfortunately, Mickey’s club-owner reign was very short-lived.   
  • Press reps said the finale is “under lock and key.” So I’ll most likely be watching it with the rest of you, which means the finale recap will not be posted immediately after the episode airs. But it will show up eventually around here.

Now talk, you!